2010 Annual Letter

Greetings and best wishes for a peaceful winter solstice. This year it occurs in New Mexico with a full moon in a total lunar eclipse — a spectacular event seen only once in hundreds of years (the last one traced to 1638!). (go to wintersolstice2010.html for details of the December 21 lunar eclipse)

The year of 2010 has been extremely productive for the Solstice Project. We have gained new insights into the enormous extent of the Chaco culture’s expressions, geographically and conceptually. And we have come to learn that Chaco Canyon itself and the Chaco culture are not isolated phenomena.

First, as we documented the dangers to the fragile Chaco “roads”, the Solstice Project was honored to receive a National Trust Preservation Funds grant as an organization whose research is “actively working to protect and preserve the important places that tell the story of America.”

Our goal was to precisely record a major portion (40 miles) of Chaco’s Great North Road. The road, currently threatened by energy development, is an extensively engineered construction, with astronomical orientation and ritual use. This pilot study was designed to test the effectiveness of LiDAR (Aerial Laser Scanning) in recording hundreds of other Chaco roads, and to provide data for further ground research and urgently needed management. The results were extremely rewarding: LiDAR proved to be a tool with unprecedented capability to record the subtle and rarely visible Chaco roads.

We became educated about the vast reach of these “roads”, as well as their elaborate development but surprisingly limited practical use. They are an under-documented phenomenon that remains a tantalizing enigma. As a postscript to this letter, we offer some thoughts from our diverse colleagues who joined in our seminars to deepen our understanding of the Chaco culture’s expressions: archaeologists, geologists, mapping specialists and Pueblo educators.

We also reached beyond the South West when we hosted a seminar in September with scholars of three North American cultures: Cahokia (St Louis), Hopewell (Ohio) and Chaco. For two days, we presented and compared our findings of astronomical alignments, ancient “roads”, and monumental architecture and earthworks. Several of these scholars had looked to our findings in Chaco to help decipher what at first were puzzling orientations of monumental works and roads. We were all struck by certain parallels. Each culture developed large works of earth and/or stone construction, exhibiting impressive geometries and often in meaningful alignment with distinctive topographies (rivers, expansive cliff formations and canyon mesas), as well as with the sun and moon. And they constructed roads not for trade and transportation but in relation to ceremonial structures. We also touched on the widespread documentation of roads throughout the Americas and committed ourselves, for a deeper understanding of Chaco roads, to encompass these as well in future studies.

We will continue this dialogue in upcoming seminars. There is much more to learn. We will be asking questions about the effect of latitude on the ancient people’s location of these ceremonial centers. We will continue to share new findings as they develop.

The Educational and Preservation work continues:

Two weeks ago, I was hosted by Joann Crespin at the Santa Fe Indian School, teaching a class of Kewa (Santo Domingo) students. We experimented with the research version of the Sun Dagger Explorer model. As a part of the school’s Indigenous Language Institute, Johann teaches in Keres so our material was translated into traditional language and concepts. The educational version of this Explorer model continues to be on display in the N M Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque. We hope that you have a chance to visit and engage with its interactive tools.

Our film The Mystery of Chaco Canyon continues to be shown by local PBS stations. Our book “Chaco Astronomy: an Ancient American Cosmology” is coming into a second printing! It is available on Amazon.com or OceanTreeBooks.com.

This last fall, we produced a video with Rich Friedman about our LiDAR imaging of Chaco’s Great North Road. It is now viewable on our web site www.solsticeproject.org . This last spring we began a film on Chaco roads, recording several lively interviews with road experts and showing the stunning effectiveness of LiDAR technology.

Last January we presented a lecture at the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC: “Archaeoastronomy of the Chaco Culture of New Mexico: Research 1978-2010.” This January with Rich Friedman we will discuss our new work on Chaco roads at the Southwest Seminars, Hotel Santa Fe, Santa Fe on Monday, January 3 at 6 pm. See www.southwestseminars.org .

We are working now on proposals for the Chaco roads to be put on the “Eleven Most Endangered Places” list of theNational Trust for Historic Preservation and to be included on the National Historic Registrar. We will continue to meet with the staffs of our New Mexico Congressional delegation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to pursue protective and archival measures for Chaco sites and roads.

We hope that you will continue your thoughtful support in whatever way you can. It is critical to us in exploring new frontiers in Chaco studies and in preserving Chaco’s invaluable legacy.


Anna Sofaer, President


LiDAR (aerial laser scanning) of the Great North Road:

The mineral-rich San Juan Basin is rapidly undergoing energy exploration and extraction. Multiple modern roads crisscross the region, impacting the land and cultural features. The Chaco roads, seeming anomalies within the modern concept of roads, have remained understudied and unprotected. This project is intended to stimulate further research and preservation of this fragile yet crucial legacy.

The Great North Road appears to have had the purpose of relating Chaco Canyon to the direction north and to a badlands canyon, where it descends a steep slope into Kutz Canyon. Broken pots (probably ceremonially broken) and a stairway were found on this slope. In the traditions of Pueblo people, roads and the direction north have great spiritual significance.

Symposium on the Great North Road: breaks through the concept of Chaco roads as simply means of travel or trade.

Last May, we conducted the LiDAR imaging of the Great North Road, with the generous help of the remote sensing company, Bohannan Huston, Inc. The results were astounding: road segments that could not have been detected from ground or aerial survey became visible in the LiDAR imagery. Computer manipulations of the light source on the 3-D images bring out the subtlest of linear features, including one road with a depth of no more than three and a half inches.

In June, the Solstice Project organized a two-day meeting in Farmington, NM, to review these results with a team of archaeologists, geologists, and remote sensing specialists, along with Pueblo and Navajo educators. Members of our advisory group presented talks on the significance of Chaco roads, and on their endangerment; on roads as expressions of other ancient American cultures; and on roads as significant symbolic expressions of Pueblo and Navajo cultures who claim affiliation with Chaco.

The following day we caravanned to three locations — Kutz Canyon, Carsons Ridge and Pierre’s Complex — where archaeologists Rich Friedman John Stein, and Jim Copeland and geologist Fred Nials guided us in viewing portions of the road from different vantage points. We were shown, on the road’s course across the open desert plateau, the identifying insignia of Chaco roads — linear scatters of pottery shards. When no other defining features (architectural or geological) are in view, these small artifacts convey the alignment the ancient people intended. The sessions were filmed for future use; the conversation and research continue.

Chaco roads are not roads’: The symposium greatly expanded our understanding of the Chaco people’s activities on the high desert of the Colorado plateau.

The Chacoans’ investment in road development is extremely impressive. With highly skilled engineering, they designed rigorously straight courses extending up to fifteen miles across open desert, often connecting places that are out of sight of each other. With extensive sweeping and digging, they developed the roads to three to four feet in depth, in widths averaging 20 to 30 feet. Today we are struck by such laborious work and the mysterious story it tells of a unified intent of numerous generations.

At our symposium Winston Hurst, a Utah archaeologist, demonstrated the great geographic expanse of the Chaco roads, showing some in southeastern Utah and others in southern Colorado. These were as elaborately expressed and associated with the same shrine-like features as those near Chaco — but they were developed 100 to 120 miles to the north and northwest of Chaco Canyon.

Rich Friedman showed the enormous width of certain roads, up to 60 feet across, while also presenting a map of the Chaco region and demonstrating that roads could be occurring in the hundreds if not thousands across its 60,000 square miles. Most Chaco outlying “great house” architecture is associated with multiple roads; the count of these sites is believed to be more than 200: hence roads may exist in such great numbers. The time of road expression is also much longer than previously thought — they appear to have been made as early as 600 AD and as late as 1400 AD. In many instances, roads are developed in parallel courses, as we see with the Great North Road. And in some cases, more than two expressions of a road are evident.

But are these features roads in any sense that we recognize?

Fred Nials, a geologist who has thoroughly studied several Chaco roads, expressed his surprise that in his thorough walking of the roads and their sides, he has found no evidence of ‘normal road use’. There is a striking absence of camp sites and of the debris that is found on the sides of most historic and prehistoric roads. Even an analysis of numerous sections of the Chaco roads showed little or no impact from use.

At the same time, an identifying feature of Chaco roads are the lines of ceramic scatters, through their central cores, some extending up to a quarter of a mile. Fred, along with several others, has come to see the roads, as relating Chaco’s ceremonial architecture (great kivas, tower kivas, and shrines) to distinctive features of the landscape: springs, buttes, pinnacles and caves. He described Chaco roads as “the connective tissue between different landscapes — the web holding landscape and structures together.”

These thoughts affirm concepts earlier developed by Mike Marshall and the Solstice Project in our studies of the Great North Road. But in addition to topographic alignment, this road reveals the importance of astronomical direction. We anticipate that investigating more roads may reveal others that mark solar or lunar positions. Recently, John Stein documented a road aligned to the winter solstice sunrise at Skunk Springs, a large outlying Chaco community.

More perspective came to us through seeing the images, presented by Rich Friedman, of certain roads north of Chaco Canyon that form large circular patterns. One that encompasses several large buildings of the Holmes Group, is a near perfect circle, close to 1000 feet in diameter — clearly not built for trade and transportation.

Having failed the test of utilitarian purpose, what are these elaborate linear expressions? John Stein, a breaker of old paradigms, has often led us into larger visions of the Chaco culture. He stated outright that the term “roads” is obsolete, preferring to describe these features as alignments. He noted “the basic characteristics and variability of the individual alignments and the regional scale of the landscape where they are manifest.” He said “these are the kind of features that are not amenable to traditional archaeological investigation.”

Steve Janes, a geologist from Santa Cruz, CA, added intriguing new evidence, from his extensive surveys of the Chaco landscape. He has found lines created with only the alignments of shard scatters and intermittently placed shines and slab boxes, for up to forty-five miles in length. He believes that in general these lines are without road segments. Although they seem to relate Chaco architecture — as the roads do — to distant landscape features.

These findings tend to affirm John Stein’s understanding that the Chacoans were creating a “linescape” — sometimes manifested in roads and sometimes in lines or alignments, sometimes astronomical and/or topographic in direction.

Flora Clancy, an art historian, inspired another level of thought about the symbolism of roads. She suggested that “Roads and paths are conceptual metaphors for destiny and life” and that “movement through landscape creates places of memories.” She added that “ancient roads fall into an ambiguous area between known and unknown — representing materiality though sometimes difficult to detect.”

Further insight was added by Rina Swentzell of Santa Clara Pueblo as she experienced the Great North Road: “Doesn’t it give human meaning? I think we derive meaning in our lives right now, today knowing that there were incredible people here, people who had a visual sense that we can’t get close to. I mean what people were capable of seeing here was so fantastic and for us today that’s a gift; for us to know that we as human beings are capable of such beauty, of seeing it. It is a meaning. It gives us meaning.”

The late Ed Ladd of Zuni said (in our film “The Mystery of Chaco Canyon”) that the trail that for the Zuni connects the worlds of the living and the ancestors had great similarity to Chaco’s Great North Road. Indicating the profound significance that roads hold for his people, the late Alfonso Ortiz of Ohkay Owingeh translated the Tewa word for road as “channel for the life’s breath.”

Perhaps we will never know the purposes and symbolism embedded in the Chacoans’ extensive linear expressions, but at least we can open our minds to their unending mystery and devote our best efforts to record and preserve them. They offer future generations a compelling experience of a people who imprinted the earth with their profound connections to the natural world.

We hope that you will support this important work.

Receive Action Alerts & Project Updates by email from us!